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OUR LADY OF THE HIGHWAY by Hal Hartley Kirkus Star


by Hal HartleyHal Hartley

Pub Date: June 14th, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-73792-743-3
Publisher: Elboro Press

Rogue nuns and a psychic novice reinvigorate a failing convent in this comic novel.

Hartley’s rollicking yarn centers on Our Lady of the Highway, a run-down convent in a grim, industrial area of Brooklyn where the sisters have spent 347 years praying nonstop in shifts for world peace. But with only three nuns left, the youngest being the 71-year-old Mother Superior, Sister Bernadette, their vigil will sputter out unless the parish priest can find new blood. Such materializes in the form of Sister Magdalena, who’s a fugitive thanks to righteous crimes, such as sinking a freighter full of weapons bound for a Venezuelan coup. She brings along Sisters Evelyn and Veronica, both with equally shady resumes. Taking over as Mother Superior, Magdalena scandalizes Bernadette by starting a microbrewery to cater to Brooklyn hipsters. Meanwhile, the sisters fend off the machinations of a tycoon who wants to turn the convent into a sewage treatment plant. Further stirring the pot is Lola, a former insurance claims adjuster with psycho-kinetic powers that result in stopped clocks, shattered glass, or collapsing fire escapes when she gets upset. She joins the convent thinking it’s a calm place where she can’t hurt anyone. With a marketing plan of offering intercessory prayers for customers who buy beer and having Lola do pin-up posters in an off-the-shoulder habit, the convent does a boffo business and signs up dozens of new nuns—until the police, the FBI, and the National Guard come for Magdalena. Hartley, a celebrated indie film director, writes in a confidently cinematic style, filling the novel with quirky, sharply drawn characters; multiple viewpoints and flashbacks; exquisitely carved, imagistic vignettes—“Confident, preoccupied, serious but smiling, Magdalena is uncomplicated, graceful and selfless even as she pauses to slip a handgun into her ankle boot”—and hilarious deadpan dialogue. (“Mother Superior, may I ask a question?” “Of course.” “Are you all wanted by the law?”) For all its farcical elements, the story is an inquisitive depiction of the cloistered life, exploring its seething tensions and energetic discipline and taking seriously its commitments. (“In reality,” Bernadette muses, “God doesn’t make himself known to you except through the miracles of endurance and selflessness.”) The result is an entertaining but thoughtful spoof.

A raucously funny yet heartfelt and illuminating tale of holy orders at their most chaotic.